People often do improv trying to be funny and I say listen, funny comes from surprise and I think the best funny comes from when you surprise yourself. And to have those ideas that you’ve never thought you would ever say or anything like that suddenly come out, I think that’s when the true voice happens and then when we all get to laugh together in that moment including the person who just said that, blurted that, made that choice whatever it is.
Asaf Rosen on finding the true voice on Improv Nerd E172.
Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Toronto improv podcast The Backline. This is from Episode 66: Improv is Not a Formula. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.
2:56: When learning how to improvise, you are taught that improvisation is the execution of a bunch of techniques/standards/lessons. With experience, that will dissipate as you make your own discoveries and break rules, while having successful scenes and shows.
5:10: “As you train more, you start to develop formulas. Or certain teachers start to suggest that ‘oh there’s a way to improvise and this is the way to do it. So do it my way and you’re going to find good scenes.’ But I don’t really think really true.”
6:06: “If the end product is a success in terms of laughs and enjoyment, then no-one gives a shit about what style or technique you use.”
8:22: “Yes And works, but it’s only one of the tools you have.” You don’t always have to agree – if you say no in real life to something, you don’t have to say yes just because you’re in an improv scene. The actors in the scene share consensus, they don’t necessarily say Yes And to everything.
9:29: Grounded/truthful scenes are not soap opera overdramatic heavy pretentious scenes. Play truthful and grounded to the reality of the scene. Don’t force truth into a scene where it doesn’t belong – it doesn’t necessarily need to be in every single scene.
13:02: “I think it’s a real disservice to tell people that something can never happen, in art, as well as improv.”
13:29: “It’s not about don’t make jokes. It’s about find the time, be aware of what you’re in right now, and if a joke is needed, make a good joke man!”
15:01: Object work makes performers look comfortable to an audience, even when they are saying nothing of value. “Once you start to say more interesting things and do more interesting things, object work is still fantastic, but do you need it in every minute of every scene? No.”
16:17: Listening and Reacting – You don’t necessarily need to use every single bit of information added by your scene partner in a scene – both of these are important, but it’s ok not to take in everything or react to everything.
20:28: A sense of whimsey or play with your partner – if the two people on stage are having so much fun, you won’t be thinking about missing character or relationship or plot. But if it has those elements, it’s just as good!
22:55: Good scenes don’t need to be overwhelmingly complex. You don’t need to create the whole pie from scratch at once. Start in a simple way, find a simple behaviour to explore and build together little by little. Think less Lord of the Rings, more Whiplash.
26:23: “The idea that the audience is watching something begin so small and then grow into it’s final product is an exciting adventure, and people can really get off on that.”
27:33: Drive – “What is the scene about? Where’s the momentum? What are we building towards? There’s an end in sight. [..] Your scene needs to go somewhere.”
28:19: If you make a discovery that the audience enjoys, trust yourself to move on – don’t be afraid to continue. Don’t just hang out, continue and find something better.
32:07: “It’s important that your job isn’t to perform the perfect scene and get all of the criteria from above down, but really it’s about existing in a certain space and just experiencing what is happening to you. Being able to do that forever – not feeling subconscious, not pulling yourself out of that moment.”
33:19: Vulnerability – often mistaken for being truthful or reacting. It’s not about character vulnerability – “it’s about exposing your truth to the audience.” It’s being able to do something that you would never do in real life in order to service the scene – be it playing a low status jerk or singing. Don’t push back, don’t resist.
43:05: “It’s always good to be true to yourself and how you play but I don’t think there’s any harm in being open to altering your play based on where and who you’re playing to.”
All of this is great but especially…
- Notice something in the present.
- Ascribe meaning to it.
- Heighten it.
Don’t worry about finding something important. Don’t worry about finding a game. Just be present and notice.
These have really reinforced for me that creating good theatre is about being true to why the show is being put on in the first place and having your performers bring themselves to the stage and draw the audience in as part of the show, rather than putting up walls that separate the performers from the punters.
There is nothing wrong with agreement. It can be quite nice when someone agrees with your ideas. But there’s also nothing wrong with disagreement, either. Both are surface-level phenomenon.
Today marks two special days. It’s my second anniversary of improv. It’s also Say Day.
I never expected to be improvising for this long. Performing regularly was never a goal, neither was continuing study to the craft. An improv blog certainly wasn’t on the cards! I went to a drop-in spin cycle class once and it wasn’t one of the most comfortable experiences when I left the classroom. I felt the same way after leaving my first improv class and in all honestly, only stuck with it as I didn’t want to spend $350 on one class. I’ve made a lot of improv moves in shows, but that was one of the better life moves I’ve made.
In the last two years I’ve performed in both the Melbourne Fringe Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I’ve travelled overseas to perform and learn this stuff, meeting heaps of new people along the way. I’ve sat through so many hours of workshops, fearing that it’s my turn next and everyone would be looking at me; only to realise that they want to see me succeed. I’ve produced, won, tied, and lost at Cage Match. I’ve made a lot of friends, drank a lot of beers, and did a lot of bits.
Not to mention the personal growth I’ve felt. It took improv to truly know what it’s like to listen and be listened to. That teamwork isn’t a group of people who all want to win, but to work together. Improv has calmed me down. It’s made me more comfortable to express who I am and what I’m feeling. It’s opened me up to trying new things rather than fearing potential consequences. It’s even created some flaws that never existed before, but I’m glad that I’m aware of them.
But ultimately, I’m a result of the people who put faith in me. I’m not a one man army and I’m glad for it. So shout outs to the following:
Andrew Strano: Andrew, you were there during Level 1 introducing me to Alien Soul-Mate (the worst) and now you’re giving me notes every week following Harolds. For some reason I remember you cranking up the heat to 26 degrees at that first (and subsequent) training, causing a warm room to turn into a sweat box after two hours. I’m glad you don’t have access to the thermostat at our trainings.
Andrew, you see good in everything and everyone. You sweat trust, love, and support. When I said I was done, you said go on this path and believe that it would be for the greater good. It is Andrew. Thank you.
Daniel Pavatich: So it’s a Saturday in November 2013. I’m sitting on the floor of a hallway at Fitzroy Library, typing up a desperate pitch to a shop in the city to let me hold a MICF show because my original venue pulled out after registration closed. I’m on the floor at Fitzroy Library because Dan is running a workshop that I’m attending. Everyone around for the class has went inside except me. Dan comes out and says that we’re starting and to come inside, to which I reply that I’ll be just a moment. Dan smirks and says “When you’re ready,” and heads inside.
I’m not entirely sure why that sticks in my head, but for some reason it says everything to me about how I feel about you Dan. Your willingness to share what you know. Your incredible passion, and that you want to see the people around you improve. That you’re a bit of a smartarse but are willing to put faith in others to look after themselves. You’ve called out on my bullshit and celebrated with me when it’s worked perfectly. Thank you Dan, see you at Grain Store.
Adam Kangas: Adam, you say some dumb stuff sometimes and I get offended and fall into my bad old habits. And then I think about your actions and realise that I’m being a boob. Because your actions aren’t dumb. You have an incredible willingness to say yes, even when I haven’t believed in myself that yes is the right answer. I’m on a Harold team because you said yes. I produce Cage Match because you said yes. I assisted teaching a class because you said yes. I put up crazy ideas like a live podcast or two-prov show based on dancing chairs or a game show based on a party game and you say yes.
Adam, you’re ultimately responsible for this ever growing community. I’ve made friends, taken risks, and been given permission to fail and grow all because you didn’t say no. Thanks for saying yes Adam.
Lauren McKenna and James Brennan: Two people I went through my initial training with, and boy aren’t they wonderful. Lauren, if I was the cowardly lion coming out of level three, you were Dorothy; giving me self-belief and support when I needed it. James, I remember the night you joined Skeleton Kisses and we went to have a drink after training. It felt “right” – like putting on a comfy pair of shoes that had been in the cupboard for a while.
I feel lucky to have performed with you in some of my favourite and best shows in the last two years, and look forward to when we play again soon – be in in Melbourne, New York, or anywhere else in the world. Thanks James. Thanks Lauren.
Airblade: Goddamn. My current Harold team – Pat, Shea, Meg, Kay, Bridget, Josh, Brit, and Amruta, you’re all stars. You give me fun in my life every Tuesday and Wednesday – every in-joke, every stretch and share, every post-show beverage. It’s incredibly intimidating playing on a team with performers who are better than you, but somehow it’s so motivational while not being competitive. Here’s to more board game nights, more beach house getaways, more post-training pancakes or burritos, and more time as one on stage. Thanks Airblade.
Trillcumber: These three people, man. So many post-show complements! I still struggle to take them, but know that I’m ever appreciative. Mario: Thanks for telling me to go to Chicago and produce Cage Match. Thanks for the after-show lifts while I read your mail on the back seat. Thanks for all the bits about sportz. Hayley: Thanks for being the first person outside the team to tell me I did good when I was scared and worried that I wasn’t doing good. Thanks for being obsessed with the same John Mullaney bit to a point that we sought out a diner in Chicago. Simon: Thanks for opening up about yourself and making me realise that I’m not alone in feeling this way about improv. Thanks for the ShottsSmiles© during shows that give me oh so much delight. Thanks for all the beers that we’ve had so far. Thanks for letting me be an extra in your sketch! Thanks Trillcumber.
It’s been a great two years thanks to these and many other friends I have made as a result of improv. I’m super grateful for it. I’d encourage you to get out and tell the people you care about how you feel today too. ♥
Nathan [Fielder] had made a lot of pieces at This Hour Has 22 Minutes in Canada, and I think one of the things he found out, and it made such a big difference in Nathan for You, is just to really not ever force anything and not try to create a reaction. Like if a person is in a real situation, their reactions might be very small, but that’s still the real reaction of that person in that situation. As much as I like, you know,The Three Stooges or Bugs Bunny or something, it’s really funny just to see how a person actually behaves in a really awkward situation, and sometimes people being small and polite is just as funny. If it was written, a lot of times there’d be a really big reaction because you want the audience to feel something, so it’s really cool when people — especially when it’s actors and you’re banking on your actors being funny — that you just let them be natural and accept that people watching this will get that it’s a truthful reaction.
Michael Koman on letting audiences find the funny from truthful reactions – something that applies to improv as much as the written material he’s talking about. More comedy theory in a really great interview with Splitsider here.
It’s roughly that I want to see scenes where people are not worried about making a game, or making a pattern, or doing anything at all where it seems like they’re doing it because they think they SHOULD. No shoulds. This is slightly different in my mind than the related “don’t be funny” exercises. I just mean, forget the rules of what you think you SHOULD do, and instead just be in the scene for real and tell me what the person would really say.